Helsinki Biennial is leading the way in sustainability

View across a rocky shoreline on Vallisaari, with yellow wildflowers in the foreground and a lot of trees following the shoreline in the background underneath a blue sky. The sea can just be seen on the right of the photo stretching from a small rocky bay hugging the shoreline into the horizon.
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Helsinki Biennial, organised in the summer 2021, wants to be a forerunner in sustainability. In the case of the visual arts event, this means calculating the carbon footprint as precisely as possible and following the rule of thumb of doing more good than harm. There is always something new to learn.

If the planning of the Helsinki Biennial were to start now, many things would already be done differently. The world is changing at a fast pace and people are constantly coming up with new ideas on how to improve sustainability and preserve the environment. The aims of carbon neutrality touch upon every field – including visual arts and the museum sector. 

Helsinki Art Museum HAM’s director Maija Tanninen-Mattila has recently spent a lot of time considering the sustainability of art, events and museums. HAM is the organiser of the Helsinki Biennial and the event takes place on Vallisaari, an island right located in the sea in front of central Helsinki. It is home to particularly sensitive nature. The conditions for producing an art event here are inevitably different  compared to at a permanent museum building. HAM has received guidance from sources such as the independent multidisciplinary research unit BIOS. 

“Organising the event on Vallisaari has made us consider sustainability on a more specific and diverse level. BIOS has also helped us considerably in clarifying certain aspects, as has the EcoCompass initiative, which we are leaning on to build up our own environmental programme,” Tanninen-Mattila explains.

Viewed from a low level, shallow, rocky shoreline rising just above the sea in the foreground, Vallisaari island sits across the sea in the distance underneath a blue sky and pinkish clouds, bright sun shining from behind, but not above the island.
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The carbon footprint dictates the frame of the event 

Taking the island’s natural reserve areas into account means that special caution needs to be exercised at the Biennial in order to prevent leaving behind permanent traces. The public must stay on the marked paths. No waste can be left in the wild, and recycling practices need to be well thought out to support this goal. And what about the bigger picture? Taking local nature into account is important, but what is even more crucial is to become aware of the art event’s wider climate impacts. According to Tanninen-Mattila, it is of utmost importance to research the overall carbon footprint of the event and this is in fact already being done.

“We need to examine the event’s carbon footprint with regard to everything that we are planning, right from the start. It is clear that this also pushes us to make more and more compromises in, for example, the curation of the event”, Tanninen-Mattila ponders. 

The sustainability of curation can include many items: Where is it necessary to travel to in order to plan an arts event and to meet artists? What kinds of artworks will be selected, and what kind of mobility and materials do they necessitate? How do the curatorial theme and sustainability fit together? “Curation bears an immense responsibility. At the same time, curation is also a very personal matter. When an event picks a curator, it is also about picking a suitable personality. It is a question of creativity more than anything”, Tanninen-Mattila says. 

The theme of the artistic content of the first Helsinki Biennial is the same sea, and topics that arise clearly in the works include interdependence and climate change. Site-specificity also plays a key role. Many of the works will be built on location at Vallisaari, with an aim to use as many local and recycled materials as possible. Site-specificity also brings an additional layer to interpreting the works. Some of the artworks will become permanent features of the city’s public art collection and can be transferred to another location after the event. 

“It is interesting to get to experience what kinds of meanings the location grants for the artworks. What was it like at Vallisaari and what will it be like in another location?”  

The responsibility of curation is a major topic of discussion in the art world. Tanninen-Mattila says that questions of responsibility within curation are becoming more underlined and a new breed of ecological curators has now started to appear, such as at the Serpentine Gallery in London. 

“It is clear that museums will lay down certain conditions for curation. At the same time, it is important to examine responsibility as a broader issue, not only through ecological factors.”

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With trees either side of the photo and the grassy bank framing the foreground, a water bus prepares to dock at a dock on Vallisaari island, a small crowd of people waiting to board.
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New experiments through responsibility

The responsibility of an arts event does not end at the museum or event entrance. For instance, factors contributing to the carbon footprint also include how the audience reaches the event. 

It is fairly easy to encourage the Helsinki-based audience to arrive at the event using public transport but what about international guests? Flying to Helsinki from Japan has a large carbon footprint, but international visits are also a sign of a successful event and good for Helsinki’s tourism industry. Is it responsible to market the event around the world? 

“By exploring contradictions, we have become more aware of questions surrounding responsibility. We have to of course consider many aspects. On the one hand, visiting the Biennial can be a very profound experience. Visiting Vallisaari and taking in the artworks and the surroundings can help someone to create a new relationship with nature”, Tanninen-Mattila says.

There is also a virtual visit of the Biennial in the making; one does not need to visit Vallisaari to experience it. It also brings joy to those who are unable to arrive on the island. 

“We find ourselves at digital crossroads, and the corona crisis has resulted in a newfound popularity for digital content. It is interesting to conduct experiments on how an online experience can substitute a live experience. We have to also remember, however, that computers and digital services also use up a lot of electricity.” 

While considering responsibility may seem like a burden and even difficult, Tanninen-Mattila finds it very inspiring to look for new operational models.

“We have to do more good and less harm. That’s the key point. Conservation is at the heart of the whole museum concept. If we do not act responsibly, we are not a genuine organisation of memory. And if we are unable to make the world as sustainable as it can be, we cannot even tackle our basic mission – to produce emotive cultural objects.” 

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Helsinki Biennial, organised in the summer 2021, wants to be a forerunner in sustainability. In the case of the visual arts event, this means calculating the carbon footprint as precisely as possible and following the rule of thumb of doing more good than harm. There is always something new to learn.